Angolan Elections 2022: Polling Day
From the time the polls opened at 0700, Angolans streamed into the Assembleias de Voto [polling stations] around the capital, Luanda, where some 33 percent of the national votes are cast. Maka Angola spent the entire day touring the three most populous areas of Luanda. What we witnessed was a peaceful, orderly, and swift process so far as the voting was concerned – later there would be allegations of some irregularities with videos circulated on social media alleging attempted fraud.
More than 14 million Angolans were eligible to vote in the August 24 poll and it was clear from the moment the Assembleias de Voto opened, that they would be busy. All eight parties contesting this election had the right to appoint delegates as observers – but not all the parties could muster enough observers to scrutinize each one, as witnessed by national and international observers monitoring voting in diverse places.
Some of these assembleias had several voting stations, the mesas de voto. The designated assembleia for Maka Angola’s editor Rafael Marques was in Kinamba, where the polling station was set up as three separate tents, each with its own mesa. The mesa where he voted, didn’t appear to have an opposition observer and he happened to mention this while being interviewed by a journalist for Mozambican television. This set off a storm in a teacup, as it emerged that the UNITA delegate had been at the locale from an early hour.
It seemed like a small, possibly irrelevant, detail in terms of the broad picture of the day’s events but the significant attention and debate it attracted shows the nervousness on all sides that this election must be, and be seen to be, free and fair. This is why UNITA’s leader, Adalberto Costa Júnior, called on supporters to vote and stay (“votou, sentou”) to bear witness to any attempt to rig the vote.
Much fuss was also made of other minor irregularities. The national police, deployed without their usual handguns, were stationed in small numbers at each polling station. The election law requires them to stay at a distance of 100 metres but in some places, such as narrow alleyways, or places where there might be larger crowds, they were closer than that. Some assambleias did not post the register of voters as required by law. Later, more serious allegations would emerge.
The Maka Angola team spent the entire day touring the three most populous municipalities: Cazenga, Viana and Cacuaco, while also receiving reports from around the city and elsewhere. Overall, what we witnessed – and heard from others – was a calm, orderly and very efficient process.
For most people it took less than a minute. As they entered the tent or room, they would first show their identity card to be checked against the electoral roll by a CNE staffer in the presence of representatives of the various political parties. Eight parties were standing in this election but the smaller parties did not always have enough volunteers to be in attendance at every polling station.
With identity confirmed, the voter is then handed a ballot paper showing, in vertical order, each of the eight parties. The order was determined by pre-election ballot with UNITA at number three and the MPLA at number eight. Alongside the party name and flag symbol is a picture of their candidate for President, i.e. the first person on the party list.
Voters are then instructed verbally to fold the ballot after putting an x in the box of their choice and then to insert it into the transparent ballot box. All Angola uses these transparent ballot boxes so that scrutineers can see that they are not pre-stuffed and that there is no tampering. When the poll closed at 1700 hours, the boxes were opened in the presence of party delegates and accredited observers to monitor the count. The final tally is presented as one list, which has to be signed off by all the party delegates present. This is then supposed to be posted for public inspection.
We toured polling stations from downtown Luanda to Cacuaco, Cazenga and Viana. These are not just the most populous in Luanda, they also contain some of the poorest, most neglected neighbourhoods, where garbage is piled high in the streets mingling with human waste. These are areas of jerry-built homes around unpaved, trodden earth alleyways, often with no piped water or sewerage.
Areas such as Kicolo and Ngola Kiluanje show mass support for UNITA. After Angola’s first democratic election since Independence, in 1992, violence erupted and there were mass killings of people living here in areas perceived as UNITA strongholds. Poverty, unemployment, hunger and dire living conditions are the factors making people here choose an alternative to the MPLA. Some older people, brandishing three fingers as support for UNITA which is third in order on the ballot paper, told us they were no longer afraid of their bodies being thrown into the sea this time. When polls closed at 1700 hours, almost all of the areas we visited were going quietly about their business, observed by the party representatives.
There was one single exception, Assambleia de Voto No. 400 in the Sambizanga neighbourhood of the municipality of Cazenga. We saw a large group of young men standing within 100 metres of the tents used as polling stations and as we drew closer, we saw some acting aggressively, gesturing and yelling. We approached on foot and found they had been drinking and were now, completely unprovoked, insulting the three police, one woman and two men, on duty. Throughout the capital, the police were completely unarmed as ordered by the authorities to help instill a sense of trust (and avert any possibility of weapons discharge).
Other journalists had also approached to investigate, and as each worked to interview the crowd it became clear that the unruly ones were very drunk. They shouted over each other, stumbled, flung their arms about but once they had yelled their grievances, some then dispersed. Police reinforcements were on their way. While the national police were on foot and unarmed, convoys of Rapid Intervention Police [the PIR ‘ninjas’] drove around some parts of Luanda with sirens blaring and lights flashing to demonstrate their readiness for action in the event of any trouble.
Some assambleias did not display the cadastro – the register of electors assigned to their station, which we saw affixed to solid walls in many places but not to the canvas of tented stations. The final count tally is presented as an Acta, which by law should be posted at each station. We heard reports that the acta was not posted in some places.
Videos circulating on social media showed in one case a lady holding tightly onto the tally in her hand while others accused her of belonging to the MPLA and trying to tamper with it. Another video showed a UNITA delegate complaining he had been ejected from the polling station for complaining about irregularities. There may be simple explanations for some of these but taken out of context they serve to ratchet up the tension.
The opposition have created an expectation that they could actually overturn the MPLA supermajority and form the next government. Was this ever a realistic possibility? Many ‘experts’ have predicted throughout that the MPLA would win, albeit with a reduced majority. It is undeniable that support for the MPLA is falling – at a rate of 10% in three successive elections. But most people are not ‘experts’. What ordinary people desperate for change have been hearing is that the election is a close one, that UNITA has its best chance ever, that UNITA itself expects to win. This sets the stage for rejection of the result if UNITA does not get a majority. And this is the most likely scenario – big wins for UNITA in Luanda and other cities but not big enough.
Angolans sense that momentous changes are taking place with a significant swing of support to the opposition. They fear the MPLA is not ready to surrender its control over the levers of power. Claims that the ruling party may rig the election in its favour and the publishing of polls, prior to any results, showing the MPLA retaining about 60% of the expected vote, are stoking anger.
Our team saw no evidence of rigging or fraud at the stations we visited on election day. That is not the same as affirming the election was fair. It has been evident throughout that the party of government was able to skew the process in its favour: including a revision of the electoral law, the appointment of their own as President of the CNE, spending far in excess of other parties, and an MPLA propaganda advantage across the board.
Social media filled the gap for UNITA and other opposition parties. As elsewhere in the world, the algorithms are such that the most controversial posts get shared the most. Hence a rush to post every rumour, every suspicion can quickly generate a mood bordering on paranoia.
The UNITA leader, Adalberto Costa Júnior, and civil society associations had called on people to stay in the area after casting their vote, to watch for any irregularities (votou, sentou).
In the three municipalities we toured throughout the day there was no sign of anyone actually doing this (except much later at that one station in Sambizanga) but later we got reports that people were gathering in some places “to protect the vote”. So far, this election has been free of what Angolans call confusão but there is every risk that the final result – likely to be issued within days – will dash the hopes of millions on one side or the other. The risk is that they may take their frustration and anger onto the streets.